Video games are a growing medium. They have the capacity to be anything from really fun toys to deeply emotional experiences. In my twenty or so years of gaming, I’ve seen graphics go from crude pixel art to fully rendered, photorealistic models. Stories have become more involved and control schemes have become more complex. Of course, there are nostalgic efforts and departures from futurism, but the general level of quality is so much higher. What a time to be alive, indeed. However, while we’re making progress in some areas, we are still lagging behind in others. The content of our games and characters isn’t improving at quite the same pace. We’ve expanded the roles of what women are “allowed” to be in our games, so on the one hand, we are advancing the idea that women aren’t simply trophies in another castle to be rescued or obtained. But on the other, we are still very much pushing the idea that women in games have to be conventionally attractive.
Let’s be clear from the beginning: I love seeing attractive people as much as the next person; I’m not so much a stickler about a bit of sex appeal in our games. But there’s no question that women are sexualized in a way that men simply are not; this has been well documented. Moreover, it’s glaringly obvious that women, even when not specifically built to be sex objects, still must conform to certain beauty standards. We can observe Overwatch as a modern game example. The jury goes back and forth on whether Tracer is overly sexualized due to her very tight athletic pants, but other characters like Symmetra clearly are—her dress is completely open on the sides and exposes her legs. I specifically want to point out Mei and Pharah, who are completely covered from the neck down in a parka and robotic-mech suit, respectively, and are still considered conventionally attractive, as is the entire cast of women here. They have perfect skin, makeup, and hair. Even Ana, a much older woman, which is revolutionary in its own right, still mostly fits this mold, only departing a bit by having wrinkles and grey hair.
Contrast this to the men. For a few of them, you don’t even see their (entire) faces due to masks; their physical appearance is not prioritized. From what is visible, you can see wrinkles, scars, or eye prosthetics. And while there are crowd favorites, like Lucio, Hanzo, and McCree (who are muscular with clear skin and non-comical facial hair), there are also Roadhog and Junkrat, who are a very rotund guy and a very thin, soot-covered guy, respectively. You can tell these two characters’ appearances are based more on humor and characterization than their attractiveness (even if they are someone’s particular thing). There’s even a gorilla and a non-humanoid robot; the male characters get all the diversity here.
Why is this important, though? From a shallow standpoint, ensuring all the women are a certain type of attractive reduces the overall character art diversity. This is paramount in a game that relies heavily on quickly recognizing who you see. It’s also just sort of boring to have less character types. More importantly, and on a cultural level, this is actually pretty harmful. To bring Junkrat back up, you can tell so much about him without hearing him speak or observing his body language. He is covered in soot, has spiky, literally steaming hair, is skinny, and has wide open eyes. Everything about him screams “wild man” and explosives enthusiast. Compare this to Mei, who, as far as we can tell from her portrait, is a cute girl who might be a bit nerdy. (We know how tropes work, and “nerdy” is what glasses mean. Her parka doesn’t really tell us much either.) Again, body language improves all the characters’ perceptions, for sure. You can see that Mei has a nervous streak, and that Pharah is proud, but their physical appearance alone does not necessarily convey this the way the men’s does. This conveys the idea that women are valued based on their appearance above all else. This sends a negative message to everyone: it tells women how they need to look and dress, and it tells men that all women should look like this to be worthy of respect. It also furthers the idea that for women, attractiveness is a necessity in their success, whereas men can succeed purely on their own utility.
I pick on Overwatch because it’s the new gaming darling and is being praised for its diversity, but this problem is nothing new. I previously criticized Nintendo for using an extremely limited selection of body types in the Smash series, but women being prioritized as attractive is a through-line in many of their games. In the Legend of Zelda series, the almost entirely female Gerudo race is animated to be titillating (they are all thin, with makeup and revealing clothing) save for the lone male in the race, Ganondorf. In the Mario Bros. series, Peach is the perfect example. While Peach can apparently do everything the Mario Bros. can, she’s the only one who is required to be pretty while kart racing, partying, and going on adventures.The Mario franchise is relatively bereft of in-depth characterization, and this might seem nitpicky to some people. But this is telling girls that their options are Peach, Daisy, or Rosalina, and boys’ (human) choices are Mario, Luigi, Wario, or Waluigi—the latter of which are specifically designed to be unappealing (to most).
Again, this is deeper than over-sexualization. That has subtle reinforcement into stereotypes for sure, but it’s fairly obvious that the creators are prioritizing looks. When you see a chainmail bikini, you kind of know what the artists were going for. But more “modest” characters still being subjected to unfair standards is more insidious in its reinforcement of gender roles. Additionally, it’s harder to spot. Having conventionally attractive characters is fine, but once these attractive men and women are joined by comical/unappealing/awkward men and women who are still conventionally attractive and appealing, the whole thing starts to show a blind spot. And that’s what I think it is: I don’t believe there is an active agenda. I just think artists and creators, when not actively addressing their own biases, are prone to this sort of thing.
That’s all I’m asking for. I want creators to be a bit more vigilant when making their characters. If creators are actually shooting for diverse casts, I would like them to truly be as diverse as they claim. Further, I do believe artists should have more range than pretty faces. Lastly, it would be great for “would I sleep with this character” to not always be a priority in women’s character design unless that’s the philosophy posed to the entire work. I don’t think these are ridiculous suggestions to make. If gaming wants to claim to be a diverse, welcoming, and inventive medium, it needs to act like it. It’s the right thing to do, both morally and financially.